In truth, you can experience a strong, if selective, Otherness online just by surfing Google Images with Safe Search off - or, in a 3-D world, by logging into Second Life. There you often feel you've stepped into a truly alien place - for better or worse - because residents of Second Life can create anything they want. And boy, do they. Brothels of furry debauch aren't the Otherness I mean, but the Second Life experience does raise the idea of a user-created travel experience.
By accepting and leveraging the cultural differences of their players, internationally popular MMOGs could foster a healthy regionalism, more constructive and less bloody than real-world versions. Encourage players to group in some pleasant, non-threatening way that honors their heritage. Give all the Ukrainian players incentives to create Ukrainian NPCs, missions and architecture near one another. Do the same for the Scandinavian players, the Chinese and so on. They don't need wildly various terrains or textures - even in an urban environment like City of Heroes, players could create cultural enclaves like San Francisco's Chinatown or Singapore's Little India. Provide a community feedback system to rate and promote fun cultural stuff. Reward players for visiting each other's locales. Just be ready to ban griefers.
Possibly nationalist and cultural identities will prove too scary for MMOG publishers. After all, the blood feuds of ten centuries can easily migrate online. Yet we can still look to individual players. New open architectures and versatile toolkits like Metaplace let industrious creators conjure, populate and link their own virtual worlds. Over time, the best of these could conceivably grow as ornate as Ancient Rome in Google Earth. These home-grown spaces should offer plenty of Otherness - and maybe they won't all be brothels of furry debauch.
I'll look forward to that, but I still hope to keep travelling. No online game can capture that entire experience, because the experience has two parts: going somewhere new and, just as important, getting away from where you were. As long as you can turn off the computer and go to sleep in your own bed, you'll never experience the second part - the part that changes you.
In space, some astronauts feel a euphoric "Overview Effect." Travel isn't so mystical, at least not for me, but separation from the familiar does bring you to a different place mentally as well as physically. That, I think, cannot be replicated in games. A good game is about agency, about choosing actions and acquiring gradual mastery over your environment. In one important sense, travel is about the opposite of mastery. It's about stepping off the edge, out of your comfort zone, and seeing where the path takes you and what it makes you. It's not about decisions at all, except for one crucially important decision, the first one: the decision to go.
Allen Varney, designer of the paper-and-dice roleplaying game PARANOIA (2004 edition), now manages Ninjalistics, your top-quality provider of corporate espionage and assassination solutions.